United Express Looks for Edge With Bigger Jets

Manufactured in Brazil, the Embraer 170 has a 70-seat configuration that will let United Airlines offer three classes of service on its regional routes.
Manufactured in Brazil, the Embraer 170 has a 70-seat configuration that will let United Airlines offer three classes of service on its regional routes. (By Paulo Whitaker -- Reuters)
By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

United Airlines is slowly rolling out its latest weapon in its battle to fight off low-cost carriers and win over business travelers: new 70-seat regional jets.

Unlike most small jets, these aircraft for short-haul flights of up to three hours on United Express have three seating sections -- first class, "economy plus" and coach. In first class, the Embraer 170 twin-engine planes also have extra legroom (38 inches) and meals (a cold sandwich). Coach passengers get a soft drink and a snack.

Dulles International Airport will eventually have the second-largest concentration of the jets after Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, United's hometown airport.

United is phasing in the new jets partly in response to complaints from customers who said the airline's 50-seat regional aircraft were too cramped. The Embraer planes also allow United -- which has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for nearly three years -- to provide service on less popular routes without having to use larger, higher-cost jets. "Our passengers were less tolerant of the smaller planes, which is why we're going for the 70-seaters," said Sean Donohue, vice president of United Express.

United Express co-pilot Kent Brace said he was pleased by the roominess of the planes. At 6 feet, 6 inches, Brace said he didn't have to hunch over in the cabin, as he did in the 50-seat aircraft. He said that on a recent flight to Montreal, he stood straight up and still had about an inch to spare between his head and the cabin's ceiling. "This is a lot better than the other ones," Brace said.

The planes have a two-seat configuration, meaning no middle seat. There are two restrooms, two pilots and two flight attendants on each flight.

The aircraft don't have any in-flight entertainment because "most travelers have their own iPods, personal DVD players and laptops," Donohue said.

United's new regional fleet is aimed at drawing passengers away from Independence Air, its biggest competitor at Dulles. Independence Air used to operate United's regional jets out of Dulles under the name Atlantic Coast Airlines before breaking away to form a low-cost airline. Independence flies coach-only, 50-seat Bombardier regional planes. "We're going to win this battle," Donohue said.

United will operate 28 of the Embraer planes by the end of the year and another 77 by June.

On a recent flight, St. Louis physician Mike Plisco paid $25 to upgrade to economy plus for the 34 inches of legroom, three more inches than coach. "This is great. But there could be a little more luggage room," he said.

Overhead bin space is somewhat limited, although United Express flight attendant Robin Clark said the bins can hold roller bags as long as 25 inches.

Donohue said travelers can learn what type of plane they're flying either by visiting the airline's Web site or asking their travel agent or the airline's reservation agent when they book their flight.

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